It is a mere curiosity that Nicola Sturgeon and Nicolò Machiavelli have more or less the same forename and certainly a name with a common origin, but in these days when the White House has to issue statements denying that balloons over the USA are the work of aliens, someone will see some pattern there. I wonder if Scotland's First Minister, a notoriously keen reader, has ever opened The Prince
? Now that her career as First Minister is drawing to a close, Nicola would find much of interest in Nicolò's writings, while the exhausted columnists who have been dissecting her career might find an original key to understanding that career.
The first thing is to clear aside some of the poison surrounding the name Machiavelli. Any reader would find much to challenge, but also to confirm, the received judgement on the Florentine writer which has lingered in British culture since he was labelled as the 'murderous Machiavel'.
Having no wish to quite whitewash Machiavelli, let us not deny the vileness of some of the policies he advocated. He commended Cesare Borgia, the Putin of his day, for boosting his reputation by appointing a lieutenant, Remirro de Orco, to pacify Romagna and then somewhat dramatically having his body cut in half and left on display in the douce town of Cesena. The aim was to deflect blame from himself for the brutal cruelty of the campaign. Putin might try that on the commander of the Wagner mercenaries.
We are on more tentative ground with Nicolò's views on truth and lying, certainly not specifically as regards Nicola herself. Machiavelli himself was more a Boris Johnson than an outright advocate of casual mendacity, but then as now respect for the truth in political circles is a virtue respected largely in the breach. It was no bad thing, Nicolò wrote, if statements made in public coincided with the facts, but it did not necessarily have to be so. It was permissible to flannel a bit, especially when circumstances had changed from the original statement, or when the repetition of uncomfortable facts would damage the leader's interests. In such cases, princes, or politicians, were entitled to be economic with the truth, pursue their own interests, and tell their own fibs. This approach was taken by Boris in partygate, and might yet be of value to Nicola in regard to the CalMac fiasco.
There are other deeper views expressed by Nicolò which, in the light of her recent decision to step down, Nicola might find it sobering to consider. These concern a wider view of life, not only regarding the exercise of power. There are, Machiavelli writes, two forces in statecraft which bring a person to power or prominence but are also decisive in the course of social and individual life as such. These forces he identifies as virtu
. The former certainly does not mean virtue, but it would appear Nicola has exhausted her store of both.
In earlier times, virtu
could have been translated as manliness, but that notion will not pass muster today. Perhaps charisma, individuality or even personality render the idea more clearly since the term indicates the purely personal qualities which a man or woman possesses, or fails to possess, and which will make them a success or failure in life. These are qualities of mind or character and would include intelligence, shrewdness or foresight but could equally indicate cunning, ruthlessness or brutality. They could be the virtues of a saint but equally the vices of a scoundrel or even psychopath. They certainly did not require to be moral, although that is not excluded.
has in recent years faltered, especially over gender recognition and the de facto referendum issue. Nicolò thundered against flatterers, and Nicola expended her own credibility pushing through the gender recognition reform, listening only to her own advisers and ignoring public concerns.
But these leadership qualities will only permit an individual to go so far unless they are buoyed by fortuna
, which is easier to translate and does indeed designate fortune or luck. The circumstances permitting a person to rise in life or in their career have to be right, and they can be controlled only to a certain extent. Those who rise to power by luck will find it easier to attain authority, but will have the devil's own job to maintain it. Liz Truss? There was a vacuum which she filled, but since she lacked virtu
and believed in fairy gold, or something ethereal called 'growth' to pay for unfunded tax cuts, her days were short. Her career will be subject to critical, or derisive, scrutiny for years.
Fortune can be exhausted, and maybe that is the case with Nicola Sturgeon. Her luck had turned, and her followers, even her courtiers, were muttering. Her fortuna
ran spectacularly out when, at exactly the point when her measures on trans sex or gender became law, one individual, the double rapist called Adam Graham, decided that he was really a woman to be called Isla Bryson and as such deserved on conviction to be imprisoned in a female jail. At any other time, that fact would have passed more or less unobserved, dealt with by administrators, but luck is a force in politics.
All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell famously remarked, and if Nicola Sturgeon had her undoubted successes, especially in electioneering, her career is dragging to a sad close. Was it just bad luck or fortuna
compounded by a deeper fault? And who is paying the price? Nicola herself? The party she leads, whose popularity she contributed to? The cause of independence she has advocated? And now that she is going, are there candidates for the post who will be blessed by fortune or will show the indispensable personal qualities? The early days of the campaign are not promising. Nicolò is no prophet, but he was an acute observer and commentator.
Joseph Farrell is Professor Emeritus of Italian at Strathclyde University